Oceania | Diplomacy | Society | Oceania

The Foreign Policy Benefits of a Treaty With Australia’s Indigenous Peoples

Making peace with Australia’s past could be a boon for its international relations, as well as simply being the right thing to do.

By Henry Storey for
The Foreign Policy Benefits of a Treaty With Australia’s Indigenous Peoples
Credit: Flickr/ Michael Coghlan

Australia is unique among the Anglosphere as the only nation that has no form of treaty relationship with its indigenous peoples. Throughout its history, the United States has signed hundreds of treaties with different Native American groups. The Canadians have 11. Across the ditch, New Zealand has the Waitangi Treaty.

Australia has been late to the party, but in recent years has made tentative steps toward a treaty – or at the very least, some attempt at recognition. The 2017 “Uluru Statement from the Heart” made by indigenous delegates from around the country called for the establishment of a constitutionally-enshrined First Nations voice to Parliament and a Makarrata – a Yolngu word roughly translating to treaty – Commission to supervise treaties between the government and different indigenous groups.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has personally argued that enshrining an Aboriginal voice to Parliament in the constitution would be tantamount to creating a “third chamber” in the legislative branch. Instead, the government has signaled that it is open to legislating a voice – meaning that such a move could also be overturned by legislation – and pursuing “recognition” of Aboriginal people in the constitution. Of the treaty or Makarrata Commission, there has been little, if any, mention. The ruling Liberal Party’s “Plan to Support Indigenous Australians” makes no mention of either. Impatient, the Labor-led states of Queensland, Victoria, and the Northern Territory have initiated their own slow steps toward a more localized treaty or treaties.

It is likely that the government has somewhat cynically calculated that given the relatively small size of the indigenous population, a treaty will not be a vote winner. Among the broader Australian population, those who support a treaty would be reluctant to vote Liberal for other policy reasons. On the flipside, any moves toward a treaty would likely alienate staunchly conservative Liberal MPs voters and their coalition partners, the agrarian National Party – who have traditionally reflexively opposed advancements in indigenous policy, from land rights to the apology to the Stolen Generations.

The experience of the “culture wars,” or more aptly “history wars,” illustrates that a significant segment of Australian society and the political class is simply unwilling to acknowledge the historical realities of invasion, massacres, forced assimilation, and arguably – especially in Tasmania and Queensland – genocide, all of which a treaty process would seek to acknowledge and amend. More moderate Liberals would fear losing these voters to the far-right One Nation Party, whose leader Pauline Hanson called displays of indigenous culture at the 2018 Commonwealth Games “disgusting.”

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This is not to mention the fact that a treaty process would likely be expensive, time-consuming, and almost certainly divisive. Indigenous Australians are highly diverse. There are hundreds of different language groups and different indigenous nations were impacted by colonialism to varying degrees from one end of the vast continent to the other. There may indeed have to be a series of treaties, even within each Australian state and territory. Given this, it appears that the Morrison government – much like the Hawke government after the Barunga statement – has chucked the idea of a treaty in the “too hard” basket.

Treaties with indigenous peoples are by no means a panacea. They have been forged with a stark power asymmetry, interpreted radically differently by both sides, and routinely violated by the colonial state. Yet they do provide a point of legal recourse, seen most clearly in New Zealand. In 1975, the state established the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate claims for compensation made where the treaty has been violated. Well over NZ$1 billion has been paid in compensation and efforts have been made to significantly increase the prominence of Maori language and culture in public life. While the reasons for this are varied and complex, it is notable that Maoris generally enjoy a significantly better standard of living than indigenous Australians and feel a greater sense of belonging to New Zealand’s cultural fabric.

There are many other reasons for a principled Australian government to negotiate a treaty, chief among them basic decency and historical justice. Yet one more marginal, but nonetheless important, reason that is often not discussed is the benefit that a treaty would entail to Australia’s international relations.

Throughout parts of Southeast Asia, Australia is rightly or wrongly sometimes perceived as a “neocolonial” power. This discourse is particularly potent in Indonesia: Australia’s role in “stealing” East Timor and apparent designs on West Papua are also certainly material here. There is often a view that Australia is a “white” nation that does not truly belong in the region, despite its increasingly multicultural character and growing Asian population. This sentiment is often exploited for political gain whenever fault lines cyclically erupt in the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew famously warned Australia that it risked becoming the “poor white trash” of Asia. In his former stint in the top job, current Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad once described Australia as a white colony that was not a part of Asia. This argument was used to justify Mahathir’s decision to boycott the first APEC summit in 1993 and generally pour cold water on Australia’s regional integration push. A treaty – ideally alongside an Australian republic and political class truly representative of its growing diversity – would send a powerful signal to the region, definitively dispelling notions that Australia is a white, neocolonial nation. This would reap dividends for Australia’s regional integration goals, whether ASEAN membership or something else.

A post-treaty Australia would also be able to stand up for human rights – which, at least on paper, is a cornerstone of Canberra’s foreign policy – with greater legitimacy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made a habit of pointing to Australia’s checkered history, accusing Canberra of “racism” whenever legitimate criticism is made of China’s human rights record or revanchist foreign policy. Making peace with its indigenous people and rectifying past mistakes as much as possible would put Canberra in a far better position to rebuke the CCP’s cynical claims. Australia could more legitimately call out Beijing’s shocking mistreatment of its own indigenous people in Xinjiang.

Finally, a treaty could help pave the way toward a more independent foreign policy. Academics like Anthony Burke and others have powerfully made the case that Canberra’s fear of invasion – and hence its propensity to cling to the U.S. alliance, whatever the cost to Australia’s blood and treasure – partially results from a feeling of illegitimacy. In crude terms, there is a fear deep in the Australian psyche that what we did to indigenous Australians could be done to us by a foreign power to the north. A treaty – while not undoing the past – could provide the Australian mainstream with a greater sense of security and legitimacy in its existence. The upshot of this may well be a political class that is less willing to reflexively join U.S. military adventures that have little discernible benefit to Australia’s security.

As a mature and increasingly multicultural liberal democracy, it is high time that Australia properly dealt with its past by facilitating treaty arrangements with its indigenous peoples. Justice, social cohesion, and Australia’s international relations would all stand to benefit from this process.

Henry Storey holds a Master of International Relations degree from Melbourne University. He is an editor at Foreign Brief and currently works as an analyst for political risk consultancy in Melbourne.